Breaking down language barriers

Bilingual program emphasizes 'inclusion'

AURORA – Elizabeth Ellingson teaches her science class in Spanish. And the sixth-graders, all Spanish speakers, respond in their native language.

Next hour, they’ll be in Chris Faust’s social studies course. This time, the class comprises both English- and Spanish-speaking students and it’s taught in English.

Both teachers are part of West Middle School’s new ‘Inclusion team,’ a pilot program that began earlier this year. Its goal is simple: Improve the learning capabilities of non-English-speaking students by integrating them more into the normal school day.

It’s not a challenge unique to West Middle School. Aurora Public Schools have seen radical demographic changes over the last decade. Nearly one in five of the district’s students do not speak English.

In the 1989-1990 school year, only 6.1 percent of Aurora’s students were Hispanic. By this year, that number had grown to 26.5 percent. Of the 28,916 students, 18.05 percent are non-English-speaking students. Not all are Spanish speakers, but it’s the majority.

‘As much as we can teach them English, they really pick it up from their classmates,’ Ellingson said. ‘The idea is that we want the kids to be integrated. We want everyone to get cultural diversity.’

At Aurora Central High School, a school that prides itself on a diverse student body, 7.5 percent of its students were Hispanic in the 1989-1990 school year. That number jumped to 38.4 percent this year. Out of that 38 percent, 65 percent speak only Spanish.

At West Middle School, 7.7 percent of the students were Hispanic in the 1989-1990 school year, versus 56.7 percent now. Out of that 56 percent, 70 percent speak only Spanish.

Boston Elementary has gone from about 23 percent Hispanic to about 59 percent in the past few years. Of that 59 percent, 49 percent do not speak English.

Each school is dealing with the challenge differently. At Jamaica Elementary School, there are language classes for non-English-speaking parents. Central High School has an English as a second language, or ESL, course and a program called ‘Shelter,’ where non-English-speaking students are gradually eased into classes taught in English.

When Hansell Gunn, principal of West Middle School, arrived there in 1997, the Hispanic population was about 30 percent.

‘I’m looking down the road three to five years, and we’ll probably be at about 75 percent Hispanic,’ Gunn said. ‘So changes are necessary.’

Gunn said that many Hispanic families are lured to Colorado and metro Denver because of economic opportunities not available elsewhere.

‘The economy is good here, the job market is good here, so the parents come and stay here,’ Gunn said.

Yet school districts throughout the state are struggling to hire qualified Spanish-speaking teachers. Of the 70,000 students in Denver Public Schools, more than 15,000 speak little or no English. Their primary language is Spanish.

The Denver school district also is in the first year of a new bilingual education program, which is designed to mainstream students into English-only classes within three years. Critics of the new system say that three years is simply not enough time. But Denver school officials argue that ‘fast-tracking’ kids into English classes quickly will benefit them most in the long run, when they go out into the real world to look for a job.

However, many arriving Latino families are drawn to North Aurora because of the East Colfax corridor – a concentration of motels, stores and restaurants, said Renee Fajardo, a member of Latin Council, a cultural awareness nonprofit organization in Aurora.

‘If you have someone who just moved here and don’t have a job or other support, you can get all of that along East Colfax. You have all those motels that cater to low-income people, you have restaurants that will hire people off the street, you have basically a supportive environment in that part of town,’ she said.

Changing demographics

Kay Shaw, director of staff development for Aurora Public Schools, said the district is taking several steps to meet the challenge of the changing demographics. The district is actively recruiting Spanish-speaking teachers and specialists who teach English as a second language. Shaw said the district currently has 30 ESL tutors that roam from school to school working with teachers and support staff.

The district also offers Spanish courses to its 1,800 teachers and 1,500 support staff workers.

Shaw emphasized the importance of having everyone who interacts with students speak both English and Spanish. She admits it’s a lofty goal, but one that’s worth aiming for.

Language, she said, is the key to learning.

‘The way kids learn to read is by connecting by what we call prior knowledge, the previous experiences they’ve had,’ Shaw said. ‘The less you’re able to expand on your prior knowledge, the less likely you’re able to grasp the material. What happens is we get a lot of students who may not have a lot of prior knowledge because they haven’t spent a lot of time in schools and can’t grasp the language sitting next to a student who does have the prior knowledge and can explain it.’

When he arrived at West, Hansell Gunn said, he noticed
the non-English-speaking Hispanic students were struggling with their schoolwork, but he didn’t know why. After all, the students were taught in Spanish, and they interacted with their Spanish-speaking classmates.

But it wasn’t enough.

By spending their entire school days immersed in Spanish classes, non-English-speaking Hispanic students weren’t getting the reading and comprehension skills necessary to grasp crucial material. Thus, when the students took an English-based exam or state standardized tests, they struggled.

‘Basically, we’re dealing with a different culture,’ Gunn said. ‘ You can
say ‘Well, they have to abide by our rules.’ But it is our obligation to provide an education to everyone, and so we had to make some changes.’

Said Shaw: ‘Students with a second language need an opportunity to build their own language, and then build on another language. You don’t want to keep them in the same classes all day because they would learn their own language, but they would have trouble with another language.’

And that’s where Gunn sees the problems.

‘Our test scores have been pretty low at this school,’ Gunn said. ‘And I think it’s mainly because of the language barrier.’

Team approach

In addition to Ellingson and Faust, the Immersion team consists of Frank Mayhue, who teaches math, and Marquis Olson, who teaches science. There also are several assistants and instructors.

Students in the program spend the entire day in one wing of the school. The classrooms are adjacent to each other. That way, teachers can interact and progress can be monitored. They decide which classes are taught in what language. For example, if a large number of the Spanish-speaking students need help in a particular subject, they’ll likely teach that subject in Spanish.

Since it’s just the first year of the program, kinks probably will have to be worked out next year. Some say they already see results.

‘At first, about 50 percent of the students couldn’t speak English, and we were having trouble,’ said Eugeina Garcia, an educational assistant in the program. ‘But after about two months, we saw progress. We saw more and more kids speaking English and adjusting. It definitely helps to have them in a diverse environment.’

Since this is the project’s first year, no results have been collated, Gunn said. He said they measure results day by day, noticing if students’ skills are improving. He said results will be evaluated at the end of the school year and then they’ll decide whether to expand it to seventh- and eighth-graders at West.

Gunn said the goal is to get all West students into the same classrooms learning at the same level.

Staff writer Carlos Illescas contributed to this report. Andrew Guy can be reached at

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